The Importance of Doing Your English Homework
Before I get started you should know that the humble subject of this talk will be the life and death importance of doing your English homework. Or, if that’s not sufficient, why a habit of doing your English homework will make you a better friend, girlfriend, mother, or son.
But before I get to that I want to share a couple of anecdotes and thoughts.
The first takes place on a plane. I was trying to get home from Minnesota last winter and, after being delayed several times, the flight finally took off. En route we were slowed by wind and poor visibility, and forced to circle above Chicago for an hour before landing. Upon touching down everyone stood up, hunched and crowded beneath the overhead containers. We tried to inch our way towards the front when suddenly, a man, flush with indignation, yelled from the back of the plane: “Jesus Christ, will you people hurry up?! Some of us have connecting flights!”
Of course. How thoughtless of us! How rude and inconsiderate to have lingered, soaking up the joy of those final few moments aboard the plane. Surely, it seemed to this man, we were all at our final destination, all oblivious to his needs, or –even worse– recklessly, willfully, ignoring the dire straits in which he had found himself.
To this man it was not a delayed flight, or an unfortunate series of events. It was a wrong, a deep injustice, being done TO HIM. It was not a plane full of people, of mothers trying to get home to their families, of boyfriends trying to surprise their girlfriends, of grandparents – instead it was a situation, a crime, being committed AGAINST HIM. There was no collective inconvenience; WE were delaying HIM.
To borrow unapologetically from David Foster Wallace’s talk on a similar subject, it is, to put it mildly, worth remembering that “there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
We’ve all experienced the mundane, everyday effects of this.
Why do we care about our hair when we’re standing in large public spaces? Because we’re so deeply convinced that we’re the center of the room that we cannot help but assume everyone is looking at us. Even the clear logic which follows from the fact that we don’t care about other people’s hair does not save us from the fear that we are being watched. It is, after all, our hair – not someone else’s.
Why is a sports injury so lonely? Because we remember how we felt when it was someone else who was hurt. We remember that, although we were concerned, on a deeper level we didn’t care, we couldn’t care, because it wasn’t happening to us.
You are about to miss your flight – everyone else’s problems are just white noise.
Seniors, you will feel the backlash of this quite soon.
It’s no coincidence that senior year is the most highly anticipated. For nine glorious months you and the school are oriented in the same way: Right now it’s all about you. It’s your turn to be prefects and captains, to apply to college and to scream the number of days left until you graduate. But soon that number will be zero and we’ll be shaking your hands and pushing you out the door at the same time.
Be careful about coming back next fall. You’ll feel it the minute you step on campus. Things will be different because you won’t belong, because we will keep going without you. And the worst part is this: Peddie will be great next year, too. Jokes will still be funny (who knows, maybe even funnier), games will still be won (maybe even more), and instead of feeling totally at home and safe and important, you’ll just be “that guy.”
Although you may grasp what I’m saying conceptually, the experience of talking to a teacher and realizing that you’re just another student is not a pleasant one. It won’t feel good when they have to go, when you see in their body language and hear in their voice that they have other things to do than make small talk with you.
But why are these things related, and what does reading have to do with any of them? I’m getting to that, I promise.
This is not a talk about an impatient man on a plane. Nor is it about clingy seniors. They serve to exemplify the way in which we fail to exercise perspective, but do not necessarily illustrate the sometimes significant consequences of our inability to do so.
Here’s something which I think does.
My father died of cancer last summer – and the truth is that it was not until several weeks before his death that his illness became about him and not about me. He had never taken care of himself – and in my introverted reflex, I perceived his life-ending hardship as something that was happening to me, something being done TO me BY him. It’s an unflattering thing to admit – but there were moments, many moments, when his struggle felt like my tragedy.
And so, the unfortunately realty is that instead of helping him through this final chapter of his life, I preoccupied myself with the pages of my own. Time we could have spent together was instead squandered by virtue of my unwillingness to recognize this basic truth about our orientation.
And here it is:
The thread that joins these experiences and brings us back to the critical importance of doing your reading is this: to read is to listen, to actually listen, to someone else. To read is to momentarily concede our stronghold on the “tiny, skull-sized kingdoms” over which we preside. It is the act of letting someone else’s voice drown out our own.
We may not always remember what they have said, we may not agree with it, like it, retain it; but none of those is the critical thing. The most important piece is that we rehearsed, and that we continue to rehearse, the ability to let others enter our world – the immediate world of our thoughts and feelings and needs. The ideas don’t always need to be life changing, or even profound – but this is, like so many others, a learned skill. It is a skill cultivated ONLY through repetition, through habit, and through will.
Reading is the profoundly unselfish act of letting someone else’s thoughts and feelings take precedence, and what I’m saying is that it is perhaps the closest we can come to doing so completely. To watch something is surely not enough – even listening doesn’t get us all the way there; it’s too easy to revert back to the monologue inside our heads, the constant stream of self-centered musings.
These inner dialogues run the gamut from inane and innocuous (Think: “Why hasn’t she texted me back yet?”; “What am I going to wear to family style?”) to the more threatening and distracting thoughts such as the ones I had towards my father. Admittedly, they’re of a very different magnitude, but we would be mistaken to say that they are not also, on some level, the same.
The more able we become to hear other’s voices, the less likely we are to feel that our burden is the heaviest. When I’m stuck in traffic or standing by the side of the highway because my car is broken down again it’s small and it’s meaningless and it’s funny. It is totally inconsequential in the sprawling world of people with real problems. The realization that you are not as important to anyone else as you are to yourself is harsh and humbling. But it’s freeing as well.
You will be freed from the self-indulgent pity you have as you trudge towards class on Monday mornings, believing that the world has conspired against you. You will be freed of the anger you feel when you’re short on time and the line in the dining hall isn’t moving. You will be freed from the stress of getting dressed before a dance. You will be freed from the stress of college!
It may feel like a stretch to imagine that the act of reading and what you did in front of the bathroom mirror before you walked over here have anything to do with one another, but they do. The hair check and the enraged man on the plane and the loneliness we feel on the field and the unread books by our beds are inextricably linked. And before we stand any hope of the kind of self-awareness it takes to step outside ourselves, we must first be able to let something else in.